When John Peirson (BBA ’88) graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he never dreamed he’d be where he is today.
Peirson is deputy chief financial officer of Deloitte Services LP, a Big Four accounting firm and $17 billion dollar global professional services organization. Based in Minneapolis, he manages the firm’s financial risks, including treasury and cash management, accounting and reporting, taxes, real estate, strategic analytics, and digitizing finance. He joined Deloitte in 2002 after 13 years at Arthur Andersen, where he made equity partner a year before the shutdown. During his tenure at Deloitte, Peirson served in various client and leadership roles before being named deputy chief financial officer in 2016.
Peirson’s career looked great on paper, but getting there wasn’t always smooth sailing. His path took many twists and turns, or as he describes it, “chutes and ladders,” referencing the popular 1970s board game.
In retrospect, these were early lessons in agility. Having to be responsive to change built Peirson’s resilience and leadership skills, and ultimately had a hand in shaping his professional direction. “I didn’t have to go down a lot of chutes, but there were some, and it definitely wasn’t a linear progression,” he says. “To a large extent, I think it’s because of those chutes, those experiences, that I am where I am today.”
With down-to-earth humor and honesty, the New Richmond, Wisconsin, native spoke to Wisconsin MBA students as part of the M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series, sharing lessons learned in building a career and being a successful leader:
- Growth can be uncomfortable. Peirson’s first two years at Deloitte were “extremely stressful.” The company had a different way of operating than he was accustomed to, and it was hard to adapt. Having to grow was uncomfortable but it didn’t mean he was on the wrong road. Peirson joked with the audience that from the time he was young up until the present day, whenever anything bad happened, his mom would say, “Well, that’s a great learning experience.” Today, he finds himself saying the same to his own kids.
- Execution is everything. Firms can spend a lot of time on goals and mission statements, but it’s taking action that counts. That’s something Deloitte understands, Peirson says. “Strategies are really, really important, but without execution, they’re worthless.”
- Build great teams. If you’re stuck on a dysfunctional team, offer to be part of the solution. Don’t complain; take ownership of the problem. One time, he was on a team where the team leader was making life miserable for everyone. In speaking with him, Pierson learned that the individual was going through a hard time in his personal life; today, they are close friends. A great team is also a diverse team; a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds will only make your team stronger.
- Learn from mentors and mentees. It’s a “two-way street” of receiving support and giving it back. Many of the mentees he hired right out of college are now his clients. Peirson said mentors he sought out—individuals who had traits he wanted to emulate—often had a greater influence on him than those he was assigned. “I’m very fortunate to be where I am; I’m very thankful. It really comes down to having sponsors, mentors, and leaders who believe in you and believe in your capabilities and challenge you to do new things.”
- Be passionately inquisitive. Being what Peirson calls “passionately inquisitive” is more important than overselling yourself as you take on new roles. Ask a lot of questions. Contrary to the “fake it ‘till you make it” school of thought, Peirson says “I never thought my role meant I knew everything.”
- Look at the big picture. Taking a step back to look at the big picture and asking for feedback are all part of the career journey. Peirson says he constantly strives for feedback along the way, not just in a year-end evaluation scenario. Sometimes he’ll ask why he was given a new position or role. “I never sought roles out, but I put myself in the position to be considered for them,” he says, which built his reputation and network over time.
Despite his experience and all he’s learned, Pierson says the future of finance in the next five to 10 years is uncertain. The onset of cloud-based applications, access to on-demand analytics, modeling and simulation tools, increased automation and use of robotics, and the creation of virtual centers of excellence to house specialized finance roles like tax and risk are just a few of the ways the field is changing. However, as technology changes at an accelerating pace, those who can understand and adapt to what’s coming will never be replaced by automation, Peirson says. Human interaction and human decision-making can’t be automated. That, at least, is one certainty he’s held on to since his days on campus three decades ago.